Writer-Director Perspectives On "Belfast," "CODA," "Drive My Car"
Kenneth Branagh on the set of "Belfast" (photo by Rob Youngson/courtesy of Focus Features)
DPs shed light on "The Power of the Dog," "Nightmare Alley"; editors discuss "tick, tick...Boom!"

Among the seven Oscar nominations earned by Belfast (Focus Features) are three for writer-producer-director Kenneth Branagh--Best Director, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The latter two make Branagh the first to receive Academy Award nods across seven categories in his career. He had previously been nominated in the Director, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Live-Action Short categories. Branagh thus surpassed George Clooney, Alfonso Cuaron and Walt Disney who were each recognized in six categories.

Yet it wasn’t this historic accomplishment that registered with Branagh when news of the Oscar recognition for Belfast came on nominations day. Instead he had a more deeply personal response. “Today, I think of my mother and father, and my grandparents--how proud they were to be Irish, how much this city meant to them. They would have been overwhelmed by this incredible honor--as am I. Given a story as personal as this one, it’s a hell of a day for my family, and the family of our film.”

That personal story centers on Northern Ireland in the late 1960s as we’re introduced to Buddy (portrayed by Jude Hill), a lad living with his mother (Caitriona Balfe), father (Jamie Dornan), older brother (Lewis McAskie) and grandparents (Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds) during “the Troubles” when neighborhood streets turned into war zones as unrest grew between Catholics and Protestants. Belfast shows us this era as seen largely through the eyes of a child, Buddy, and has a semi-autobiographical bent informed to some extent by Branagh’s experiences in his youth. The story first and foremost is about the love and resilience of a family, showing how that deep bond survives universal struggles.

The other four Oscar nominations for Belfast are in the Supporting Actress (Dench) and Actor (Hinds) categories, for Original Song (“Down to Joy” by Van Morrison) and Best Sound (sound supervisor/re-recording mixer Simon Chase, sound supervisor James Mather, re-recording mixer Niv Adiri and production mixer Denise Yarde).

Bringing Belfast to fruition for Branagh were assorted collaborators, including two on opposite ends of the continuum in terms of his professional track record with them. On one end, there’s cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, BSC, GSC whose working relationship with Branagh dates back to the 2007 release Sleuth. Their director-cinematographer filmography also includes Thor, Cinderella, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Murder on the Orient Express, and the recently released Death on the Nile. Back in 2017, Branagh and Zambarloukos received the Camerimage Cinematographer-Director Duo Award.

On the other end of the experience continuum is child actor Hill with whom Branagh worked for the first time. The casting of Hill as Buddy was pivotal. “It was clear that if we didn’t find a young man who could sort of carry the weight of the character of the film, we couldn’t be creatively successful,” said Branagh. “He had to be the soul of the movie.” Branagh related that Belfast required “a boy who had the capacity to listen and be present. We were keen to avoid too polished a young actor. I was pleased that Jude hadn’t done much acting. He had done quite a bit of Irish dancing which gave him a certain kind of discipline and awareness of the value of preparation.”

What struck Branagh about Hill was he wasn’t like many child actors who are waiting for the next point in a scene when they can speak. Instead in a final improvisation session with Branagh and actor McAskie, Hill’s face registered with a keen presence and sense of listening. “He didn’t over-prepare. There was a spontaneity about him, a sense of fun,” assessed Branagh who sought to retain that playfulness, never wanting Hill to feel overburdened by the weight of the role. Branagh didn’t want Hill to be over-prepared, overly worried or to be precocious in the wrong way. “We were lucky to find an unusual person at just the right time,” related Branagh. “Plus he was also curious, he was around the camera, watching the other actors. We had captured a performance at a point where his absorption of the material was so key. It felt like it was a great time in Jude’s life to learn--for a kid it could have been learning a musical instrument or a language. Instead he was learning cinema and doing so with a real fascination. His fascination played into how carefully Buddy was looking at and listening to the world.”

Zambarloukos meanwhile could be counted on not just for his visual storytelling acumen but also a supportive, nurturing manner that could help Hill along. “Haris is good with people, a gentleman DP, very gentle, soft spoken, quietly funny, an intelligent, sensitive presence on set. Like Jude himself coming to the movies for the first time, it feels like Haris is coming to the photographic challenge for the first time,” observed Branagh, noting that Zambarloukos integrally has “a childlike enthusiasm which is very refreshing for a project.”

While Belfast was among the first films to jump into production during the pandemic--before the emergence of vaccines, meaning that extensive preparation and precautions had to be taken--the project might not have even existed in the first place if not for the COVID lockdown. Branagh shared, “I knew I was driven to write something about Ireland, probably Belfast, but wasn’t sure what. It felt like unfinished business. It wasn’t until the lockdown started two years ago that I was revisited by that sense of uncertainty over what the future held. That’s what the nine-year-old (boy) in me experienced when the violence came (to Belfast). My secure life was upturned. Every family in that part of the world had big questions about how to face the future--a future laced with fear.”

Branagh continued, “The story in me about Belfast needed to come out. It landed in this place of exploring loss I suppose, loss of an identity, family, a country, of a street and ultimately the loss of particular loved ones. That was all happening when many formative influences were at play for me (as a boy). We were going to the movies a lot--partly as a form of escape, partly as a form of therapy. I continued to love football, was obsessed with a girl I was in love with. I had to find a way to hold onto those passions while navigating this new and enforced adulthood. Being a stranger in a strange land was what I felt at the beginning of the lockdown and it took me back in time when I felt this most keenly (as a child).” 

The pandemic also carried a lesson rooted in the present. When Belfast started filming as the lockdown eased, Branagh recalled, “We didn’t know what the COVID protocols were. We had to work it out with coordinators and the government,” taking into account coded and zoned areas, the creation of bubbles for the cast and crew, discovering new rituals for how the set would be managed. “But inside all of us was the relish of our privilege in being able to work, being able to tell a story. It’s as if the experience refreshed and reinvigorated everybody in every department, actors and crew. We felt lucky to do what we were doing--creating stories that speak to people around the world out of lockdown.”

This keen sense of appreciation was tangible, “restorative and regenerative,” said Branagh, adding, “We were grateful for this blessing.”

Siân Heder
Writer-director Siân Heder’s CODA (Apple Original Films) scored three Oscar nominations--Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (for Heder) and Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur). Two of the nods made history. CODA became the first film with a predominantly deaf cast to be honored with a Best Picture Oscar nomination. And Kotsur became the first deaf male actor to ever be nominated for an Academy Award.

The film stars Emilia Jones as Ruby who is a CODA, the abbreviation for child of deaf adult. She is the only hearing person in her deaf family which finds its fishing business in jeopardy. Ruby becomes torn between pursuing her love of music and her fear of abandoning her parents (portrayed by Kotsur and Marlee Matlin). Matlin of course is the first deaf actor to win an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress in 1987 for Children of a Lesser God. Also in the CODA cast is Daniel Durant, a deaf actor who portrays Ruby’s brother.

“If you had told me when I was standing out on a rusty boat in five-foot waves with fish up to my knees that we were going to end up here (with a Best Picture Oscar nomination), I never would have believed it,” said Heder, most enthused for Kotsur “who has worked his whole life to get to this moment.”

Heder noted it’s been 35 years since Matlin won the Oscar with barely any representation of deaf actors during that span. “Troy is someone who’s struggled his whole career and stuck with it--with incredible faith and perseverance.” 

Heder first saw Kotsur perform on stage in a Deaf West production of an Edward Albee play, “At Home at the Zoo.” She recalled him playing a serious intellectual professor, quite different from the role of Frank in CODA. Still, Heder was struck by Kotsur’s performance. “He was incredibly charismatic and had so much presence.”

Then the first time she met with Matlin, Heder asked her if she had any casting ideas. Matlin suggested Kotsur. “It was a beautiful thing,” said Heder, “that we had both come to that choice for the character of Frank separately.” Kotsur, continued Heder, came in for an audition and “completely inhabited” Frank. “He looked like a seadog who had been out on a boat for 30 years. He showed great humor, emotion and depth.”

Among the challenges that CODA posed to Heder was at the outset properly communicating with the deaf actors. She had started taking American Sign Language (ASL) lessons upon embarking on the script for CODA. But even after studying for a year-plus, Heder shared, “It’s still very different when you’re taking a class with a teacher as compared to when you get on a set to direct actors. There’s nuanced actor language. I had planned to rely on interpretors on set. But I found it more challenging to have another person in the middle of that (director-actor) relationship. I consider myself an actors’ director. I value the connection and the trust in that connection. On the first day of shooting I went up to Troy, Marlee and Daniel and asked if it was okay if I signed with them directly. They were hungry for that. I always had an interpreter to jump in and clarify if needed. I wanted to make sure that initial contact was a direct connection between me and the actors. I was continuing to learn the language while I was directing.”

It was also important, stressed Heder, “to make sure we were honoring the language”--not just in terms of connecting with the actors but in how ASL was conveyed in the film. She worked closely with cinematographer Paula Huidobro to allow the visual style of the film to be dictated by the language. “Oftentimes if you see deaf actors on screen, their hands are cut off (in the frame). A director chooses to go into a closeup. At the same time I didn’t want to be stuck in a medium shot throughout so Paula and I watched and studied ASL scenes. I sort of needed to create movement within the blocking of the scene. You show the language but in a visual style that is still exciting and cinematic. That’s true of editorial as well. Normally in edit, you wouldn’t cut to every person who’s speaking.” 

So Heder said that she worked with editor Geraud Brisson on “a new rhythm to the edit that I needed to embrace.”

Making it easier to embrace and take on a sign langugage she wasn’t thoroughly fluent in were collaborators with whom she was familiar. Heder worked previously with such CODA collaborators as Brisson and production designer Diane Lederman on Little America, a series on which Heder is showrunner, an EP and a director. Heder has an even lengthier relationship with CODA cinematographer Huidobro, which includes Little America and goes all the way back to their days together as students at AFI. Huidobro shot Heder’s very first film, a short titled Mother which went on to competition at Cannes. They also teamed on the short Dog Eat Dog starring Zachary Quinto as well as Heder’s first feature, Tallulah, which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and earned a Humanitas Prize nomination.

For a stretch, Heder and Huidobro went their separate ways and grew--Heder writing for Orange is the New Black and Huidobro taking on varied projects, recently earning her first ASC Award nomination for an episode of Physical. After evolving as artists individually, their coming back together on Little America and CODA has been gratifying. Heder has assembled what she calls a family of collaborators “who share a shorthand, who speak the same language, have a way of shot listing and storyboarding that feels very familial.”

That collaborative spirit and the experience on CODA have taught Heder the value of “trusting my instincts as an artist. The things I fought the hardest for on this film were the very things that people have responded to the most. I think that sometimes when in the midst of those battles, you wonder if it’s worth it, if you’re holding too strong. Maybe you should compromise but I wasn’t willing to. I ended up with so much pride in the response the film has gotten. It’s such a pure expression of me. There was no studio giving me notes. I was purely making a movie that I believed in--and it’s wonderful when the world responds to that.”

When her schedule permits, Heder hopes to explore commercialmaking and branded content at some point. She had connected not all that long ago with production company Independent Media for representation in the ad arena. And at press time Heder was about to start a new season of showrunning Little America after a prolonged hiatus due to the pandemic. She is also writing two feature films and developing two television shows for Apple which she has found to be “a very supportive place for an artist.”

Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Like Branagh and CODA, Drive My Car (Janus Films and Sideshow) made Oscar history. It became the first Japanese film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. Drive My Car received a total of four nods--the others being for Best International Film, Best Director (for Ryusuke Hamaguchi) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe).

Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, Drive My Car follows widowed actor/director Yūsuke Kafuku as he directs a multilingual production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima, while grappling with the death of his wife. Mandated by the festival’s producers, Yusuke is assigned a chauffeur, a young woman named Misaki, to take him to and from rehearsal each day. With the help of Misaki during their long drives, Yusuke begins to face the haunting mysteries left behind by his wife’s sudden death. 

Perhaps most surprised by the Oscar nominations was Hamaguchi himself. Speaking through a Japanese language interpreter, Hamaguchi told SHOOT that the Oscar recognition across multiple categories was “totally unexpected.” It feels, he observed, like “this far away world that I’ve always heard of and my world are colliding,” leaving him with having to figure out how to best deal with these two worlds so that they somehow will best connect. Hamaguchi added that he’s happy that he,  his cast and crew have gained recognition for being able to meet a high international filmmaking standard, which he hopes will translate into more opportunities for him and his Drive My Car colleagues.

As for the challenges that Drive My Car posed to him as a filmmaker, Hamaguchi cited the shooting of the car scenes. “There is not a whole lot of cooperation or help for films in Japan--and in particular in Tokyo filming in the streets is very difficult.” 

Typically, he related, even shooting green screen would be easier than having to shoot such street scenes. “But I knew that these scenic scenes of the car driving through the landscape of Japan would be needed and important,” stressed Hamaguchi. Thus the scenes often entailed actual driving.

Furthermore, shared Hamaguchi, “in terms of acting, being in a moving car gave much more reality and brought out a different side of the actors,” which proved essential for the film.

Another prime challenge involved the different languages in the “Uncle Vanya” stage production--including sign language. “To direct someone who doesn’t speak my native tongue was a worrisome thing,” acknowledged Hamaguchi, having to rely on interpreters. But he found that the emotion of the scenes was coming through, translating into a universal language which he could direct. “I was able to pick up and give direction about the emotionality of the scene--something that gave me confidence as a director.”

Drive My Car premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It recently earned Best Film distinction from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics. Drive My Car has enjoyed a successful theatrical box office run in the U.S. And the film was recently acquired by WarnerMedia OneFifty for its debut on HBO Max this month (3/2).

Ari Wegner
It’s also been an eventful, historic awards season for cinematographer Ari Wegner. For her work on director Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (Netflix), Wegner became the first woman ever nominated for the marquee feature cinematography honor from both BAFTA and the British Society of Cinematographers--and the second woman ever to be a nominee for the Best Cinematography Oscar as well as the top ASC Award for outstanding achievement in feature film (the first Oscar and ASC-nominated DP being Rachel Morrison, ASC in 2018 for Mudbound).

Hand in hand with Wegner in making history is Campion as The Power of the Dog made her the first woman ever to twice be nominated for the Best Director Oscar; the first nod came back in 1994 for The Piano. Campion is also just the second female filmmaker ever to be nominated twice for the DGA’s headline feature honor--for The Piano and The Power of the Dog. Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to garner a pair of DGA feature nominations, winning for The Hurt Locker in 2010 and three years later again nominated for Zero Dark Thirty. (Bigelow this year garnered her third career DGA nomination, which came in the commercials category for an Apple iPhone piece she directed via production company SMUGGLER.)

While gratified over the individual recognition, Wegner said in the far more important bigger picture that she hopes the historic recognition will inspire others “who may be thinking of cinematography as a career but don’t see anyone who looks like them at the top.” The nominations, she continued, become truly significant if they inspire others to pursue their dreams. Wegner described Morrison as “the vanguard” but it takes more than one to break a glass ceiling. Wegner observed, “It does feel like a very slow tide turning. It’s never going to happen in one day or any one moment.” She hopes that many more women will follow Morrison and her to help build that tide. But Wegner’s wish extends beyond women to other diverse groups who will help “change and morph” the face of who a cinematographer is.

To make history in tandem with Campion means a great deal to Wegner who going into The Power of the Dog admitted to feeling the pressure of shooting a Campion movie--doing justice to a definitive auteur filmmaker and contributing to a body of work that people will look at for generations to come.

Wegner shared that key for her was to never forget why Campion’s body of work is so important--why it has touched so many and how it has impacted those with whom she’s worked. Wegner said that “being in the presence of Jane” is an unforgettable experience, citing her “hugely influential energy, the way she sees the world. She is curious, openhearted and holistic in the way she tells stories. She’s been a big beautiful influence on my life. And other people who have worked with Jane have a similar before-and-after kind of feeling.” Campion, affirmed Wegner, changes your perspective on life and people for the better.

The Power of the Dog--which tops this year’s Oscar field with 12 nominations, including for Best Picture--introduces us to brothers Phil and George Burbank portrayed, respectively, by Benedict Cumberbatch (nominated for the leading actor Oscar) and Jesse Plemons (a best supporting actor nominee). While they share a bloodline, the two are profoundly different. George is polite, sensitive and considerate while Phil is the polar opposite. Both are intelligent and somehow share a brotherly bond--but their worlds move closer to colliding when George meets, falls in love with and marries Rose (supporting actress nominee Kirsten Dunst), a widow who runs a desolate hotel. She then moves to the brothers’ ranch to begin life with her new husband. Phil’s disdain for her is evident--but perhaps even more so for her son Peter (supporting actor nominee Kodi Smit-McPhee), a sweet dreamer of a kid who is the antithesis of Phil. The complexities of these characters heighten when they are brought together as ultimately Phil and Peter form what appears to be an unlikely friendship, raising questions as to where true masculinity resides--in the hard-as-nails seemingly unfeeling rancher or the lad who harbors aspirations of becoming a doctor, all the while doted over by his mother.

The opportunity to work with Campion came for Wegner initially in a short burst and grew years later to The Power of the Dog. The short-term collaboration took the form of a commercial after a mutual colleague brought Campion and Wegner together. The two hit it off, making in just a couple of days what Wegner described as an aesthetic connection. Fast forward some three years and Campion reached out to Wegner about “The Power of the Dog,” the Tom Savage novel centered on two brothers in 1920s’ Montana. Campion was in the process of adapting the novel for a screenplay and asked Wegner if she’d be interested in discussing it.

Wegner was captivated by Campion’s script (nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar). And the two bonded further during location scouting which began about a year before production. In a van for hours driving from one prospective location to the next made for meaningful conversation--about the project, life in general, “what kind of film we’d like to make” and “what experience we’d like the audience to have from watching the film,” recalled Wegner.

The conversation between the director and DP also got into granular details relative to such aspects as color and visual approaches, which in turn served as a springboard for the creation of “mood boards.”

Also fruitful were their long walks together on location. “Jane’s a big walker,” noted Wegner who observed that those constitutionals were in some respects like being in the van. “You’re not looking at each other. Instead you’re looking ahead,” taking in your surroundings and their potential as story settings.

Frequently Campion and Wegner would then go off separately, after discussing locations and scenes, to draw storyboards.

“I would draw my version, Jane would draw hers and we’d kind of compare,” recalled Wegner. “‘What did you come up with? That’s amazing.’ Maybe from there we’d do a third drawing, a mesh of the two. Or maybe one of ours was clearly better than the other. If a shot didn’t work for one scene, we’d go back to a drawing yesterday that might apply.”

The back and forth continued with set construction, seeing how buildings fit in with a location, walking through to see “what the light does” during the day, said Wegner who gained inspiration from the landscapes, the structures and the light, formulating shooting schedules based on that light.

Campion and Wegner had to also address contradictions--such as telling a personal, intimate story within vast landscapes, depicting an expansive ranch that at the same time felt confining to characters who seemed almost trapped, and shedding light somehow on the feelings of those who reside in a dark, emotionally cold place.

In a world full of huge landscapes, “the energy between two people in that environment is really microscopic,” said Wegner who observed that you have to be very “zoomed in and zoomed out” at the same time.

“That’s what I love about Jane’s work, the nuance and complexity in everything,” continued Wegner. That’s why there are no movie cliches from Campion, noted the DP. Rather an authenticity is realized which comes from the fact that there are contradictions within most every character.

Wegner opted for the ARRI Alexa LF for The Power of the Dog, noting that it’s a camera with which she’s become increasingly familiar. “Like any tool, the better you know it, the more you can push it.”

Wegner also took an approach which she described as “a cross between anamorphic and spherical” for The Power of the Dog. Though the film needed to be epic and cinematic, she and Campion felt anamorphic was not the right choice. Anamorphic, observed Wegner, can give you “a big movie look. Jane is not about the big movie cliche,” which anamorphic can lend itself to. So they moved towards an anamorphic feel without going fully anamorphic. Wegner added that she and Campion were also mindful of the fact that while they wanted a big cinematic experience for theater audiences, a great many viewers will enjoy the movie within their own homes. Thus Campion and Wegner took a lensing path that would be conducive to both.

Wegner also enjoyed a close bond with editor Peter Sciberras (a Best Film Editing Oscar nominee). The two have known each other for some time and are neighbors whose residences are separated by about a seven-minute walk, according to Wegner. While the two were so busy they couldn’t talk extensively throughout The Power of the Dog, they managed to exchange emails here and there and chat on weekends, cross-checking during dailies that they were on the right path. In an earlier Road To Oscar interview, Sciberras told SHOOT he felt he could reach out to Wegner, talk about a potentially interesting shot, brainstorm as to how a scene could be made better. Sciberras noted that Wegner would even ask him at times if he had all he needed for a certain scene or sequence. He said it was a grand luxury to have “free communication” with the cinematographer.

Wegner observed that the relationship between a cinematographer and editor is curiously interesting. “In many ways you are not working together but you are at the same time a hundred percent together. I’m making images. He only has the images I’ve made. And only the images he’s chosen will get seen.” Wegner said she’s thankful for Sciberras artistic passion and work ethic. She described him as being “relentless in the most beautiful way” when it comes to getting the most out of scenes to best tell a story.

Dan Laustsen, ASC, DFF
Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, ASC, DFF has a close-knit collaborative relationship with director Guillermo del Toro, dating back to the feature Mimic in 1997 and extending through to such films as Crimson Peak, The Shape of Water and Nightmare Alley (Searchlight Pictures). For each of the latter two, Laustsen has earned distinction as a Best Cinematography Oscar, ASC and BAFTA Award nominee. In 2018 The Shape of Water won the Best Picture Oscar, and Nightmare Alley is currently nominated for the same honor. Nightmare Alley is up for a total of four Oscars, the other two being in the production design and costume design categories.

Director del Toro also produced Nightmare Alley and co-wrote it with Kim Morgan, adapting the novel of the same title by William Lindsay Gresham. At the very outset of the film we are introduced to Stanton Carlisle (portrayed by Bradley Cooper who also served as a producer of the film) as he sets fire, literally, to his past. Down on his luck, the nomadic character stumbles across a traveling carnival where he gets an education that he uses to his advantage. He connects with clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her washed-up mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn). The latter teaches Stanton a soothsaying act that plays on probabilities of human behavior, giving carnival-goers the illusion that they can get a glimpse of their future as well as bring context to their past. Pete seems to realize, though, that the act can go too far and stops short of exploiting it to the fullest. Stanton has no such moral reservations and sees the underpinnings of the act as a ticket to success, ultimately deploying it to grift the wealthy elite of 1940s’ New York society. Stanton becomes a hot act in the big city, running a con on the privileged, affluent and powerful. Accompanying Stanton from the carnival to NYC is the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) who’s fallen in love with him. But her love can’t keep him from running his biggest con, preying on a predatory tycoon (Richard Jenkins) with the help of psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) whose ultimate motives remain a mystery.

Laustsen opted for the ARRI Alexa 65 for its ability--as a middle format big sensor camera--to enhance atmosphere even in the darkest conditions. He added that the camera’s depth of field is ideal for skin tones and faces, causing features to jump out a bit more. The Alexa 65 in tandem with Signature Prime lenses, said Laustsen, was able to handle the very low light levels deployed at times. The lighting shifts as the story advances, from dim and naturalistic to increasingly bright and harsh when the setting changes from rural carnival to urban New York, The director and DP also opted for deep dark colors, moving away from a desaturated look.

Laustsen was very much privy to and an integral part of adjustments made when production was shut down for six months due to concerns over COVID. In an earlier installment of this Road To Oscar Series, del Toro told SHOOT that the production shutdown was hardly downtime. Rather del Toro, Laustsen and their compatriots used the stretch to edit, ponder, rewrite and reflect on the film, reinvigorate it--and in a sense themselves--in varied ways. At the time when lensing first stopped, most of the second half of Nightmare Alley had been shot. In reviewing that work, del Toro determined that certain adjustments had to made in order to better serve the characters. For instance, del Toro and his colleagues discovered that a bigger variant was needed between the Stanton depicted in the first and second halves of the film. A certain innocence and more of a “youthful exuberance,” said del Toro, would be needed in the first half in order to better translate into the character who became “the hardened, completely fabricated persona of Stan in the second half.” Towards that end, additional scenes were written for the first half of the film in which Stanton connected with such characters as Pete and Zeena. Physical and subtler touches were also realized during the six-month production layoff. For one, Cooper lost 15 pounds to prepare for his portrayal of Stanton in the first half of the film. Cooper also crafted a natural accent for Stanton which he reverted to when he was alone, contrasted from his voice when he interacts with high society. During the six-months between the cessation and resumption of filming, del Toro said there was much illumination cast on “where we needed to start to make his (Stanton’s) journey” so that it dovetailed properly with the ending, the fateful last three minutes of the film.

Laustsen feels simpatico with del Toro, noting that they both have an affinity for telling a story with light, color and camera movement. In the case of Nightmare Alley, they told the story in two versions--color and a limited release in black and white. The film has been lauded for bringing film noir sensibilities to a modern thriller as opposed to trying to create a 1940s period piece though that is the era in which the story is set.

The notion of doing a black-and-white version emerged during the pandemic-induced lensing shutdown when del Toro saw that the material shot up to that point--classically lit with deep blacks and colors carrying translatable tones--carried promise as a black-and-white presentation. When lensing resumed, del Toro started doing the dailies in black and white, noting that the weight of the film shifted. Color, he observed, tended to favor the city and environments like Dr. Ritter’s NYC art-deco office, underscoring their beauty and seductive power. But in the alternate black-and-white version, the carnival setting takes on added dimensions, full of nuances, menaces and greed--helping to make the film in those respects more of an allegory than the color movie. Black and white seems to heighten the psychological journey and nightmare, said del Toro, who stressed that one version isn’t better than the other. They’re just different but both worthwhile. He’s grateful that Searchlight has given him the opportunity to present both versions to audiences.

Among the prime lessons learned--or more accurately reaffirmed--for Laustsen from the Nightmare Alley experience is the importance of teamwork, particularly in light of the pandemic. “When you have a fantastic director like Guillermo, everybody from the lowest to highest ranking on the crew is working together,” which becomes even more essential, said Laustsen, when you’re bucking the odds--in the case of Nightmare Alley coping with COVID concerns. Turning the production hiatus into an advantage, making adjustments for the sake of story yielded a final product that arguably was better than if lensing had gone on uninterrupted and there was no pandemic hanging over the proceedings in the first place.

As for what’s next for Laustsen, at press time he had started on working on a musical feature version of The Color Purple, directed by Blitz Bazawule.

Editors Andrew Weisblum, Myron Kerstein
Editors Andrew Weisblum, ACE and Myron Kerstein, ACE helped to bring Lin-Manuel Miranda’s feature directorial debut, tick, tick...Boom! (Netflix), to life--but they teamed to do so separately, a working relationship spawned by the pandemic. Weisblum began tick, tick...Boom! but COVID-related delays and a prior commitment to another film--director Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale--meant that the editor had to move on, succeeded by Kerstein whom Miranda gravitated to after working with him on In The Heights, which Miranda wrote and produced.

While Weisblum and Kerstein didn’t spend all that much time together, they now share an Oscar nomination for tick, tick...Boom! This marks the first Academy Award nod for Kerstein, the second for Weisblum who was a nominee back in 2011 for Black Swan.

Weisblum did an initial cut of tick, tick...Boom! with Miranda but the lockdown threw off their schedule. Weisblum said that being able to pass the baton onto someone such as Kerstein was fortuitous. Still, Kerstein had a steep learning curve which centered on getting to fully know the project, all the versions, varied cuts, the dailies. “It was a lot to take in at once. I dived in as hard as I could,” recalled Kerstein who got a head start by being in quarantine in New York for three days, back when there was no COVID vaccine. “That gave me a chance to talk with Andy (Weisblum) and be alone with the film. Like Andy said, nobody had seen the movie yet. I was one of the first to see it outside of Lin’s and Andy’s circle.”

The story that Weisblum and Kerstein had to do justice to was screenwriter Steven Levenson’s adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical one-man musical show (that eventually became a three-man show plus a band). Larson dealt with the pressures of being an artist, in this case sacrificing much of one’s personal life to craft a successful musical. A musical about creating a musical, the film pays tribute to Larson (played in the film by Andrew Garfield, a Best Lead Actor nominee for his performance) whose artistic struggles ultimately yielded the Broadway hit Rent, a success he never lived to see. 

Weisblum said that the pandemic giveth and taketh away when it came to tick, tick...Boom! For instance, when production resumed, having too many people in a frame contained certain risks shooting in New York. The logistics of shooting on locations became problematic relative to how scenes had been originally planned. On the flip side, though, with Broadway shut down, the movie had access to New York theater and workshop venues that were empty due to the lockdown. Thus they could film at the actual locations where Larson put on his show--rather than re-create those settings at another location. This, said Weisblum, made it easier to mix the new on-location scenes with archival footage of Larson in those same places.

Kerstein added that the pandemic made it difficult to gather people in a room for test screenings of the film. Such test screenings often provide valuable feedback which informs the cutting of the film. Kerstein had to do without that feedback for an extended period. 

The COVID crisis also added to the already complicated process of cutting a musical, Kerstein continued. Whereas for In The Heights, he had about a dozen people all in the same building, there was no such luxury for tick, tick...Boom! Trying to edit a musical remotely with “your team scattered all over the city or the world” became complex logistically. Communication had to be virtual--with music editors, VFX editors and other artisans. “The number of moving pieces could get overwhelming,” with things coming at you virtually all at once, noted Kerstein.

Still, everyone adapted and the process was made eminently doable by Miranda whom Weisblum described as being as “gracious and warm” as they come, “a total mensch” who’s open to ideas and experimentation. “He doesn’t view his ideas as precious. He understands what’s possible in editing, how you can reshape, reorganize and focus things, highlight certain details. He wasn’t afraid of that which was very liberating. At the same time, he’s very decisive, clear and focused. He had four films that year. His amount of focus--and the productivity and work that comes out of that--is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed.”

Kerstein said he didn’t get to know Miranda very well during In The Heights as he was working primarily with director Jon Chu. “I was lucky enough that he (Miranda) liked my work on that film,” said Kerstein, “so that he asked me to do tick, tick...Boom! I wouldn’t say I started at zero with Lin but I had to get to know him on tick, tick...Boom! At first I was intimidated to work with this guru of musical theater, being an editor going into his home. But I found him to be so gracious and giving. He always wanted to know what I brought to the table, wanted to know our (Weisblum and Kerstein’s) perspectives.”

The spirit of collaboration and respect between editors Weisblum and Kerstein was also instrumental in yielding them an Oscar nomination. “We had several conversations along the way (about tick, tick...Boom!), particularly at the beginning,” recalled Weisblum. “I wanted to make sure he was not shy of taking full ownership of the project and would be able to dive right in. I did everything I could to make sure we were in sync. I knew he had his own ideas which is exactly what we needed.”

Kerstein added, “I was fascinated by Lin’s work--but also by Andy’s work, including on Black Swan. To get under the hood and look at his edits was a treat. I can work with his style of editing but also bring my own DNA to certain things. It was a real joy to have both a road map as well as a place where I could bring my own style and perspective.”

Kerstein’s credits also include editing the Sundance film Garden State as well as Chu’s box office hit, Crazy Rich Asians, and HBO’s Golden Globe-winning series Girls. Kerstein additionally made his directorial debut in season 2 of the Apple TV+ drama Home Before Dark.

Weisblum has cut consistently for such notable directors as Aronofsky (Black Swan, mother!, Noah, The Wrestler) and Wes Anderson (Isle of Dogs, Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Limited). In fact, Weisblum edited Anderson’s The French Dispatch right before embarking on tick, tick...Boom!

This is the 14th installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print/PDF issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. The 94th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland in Hollywood and will be televised live on ABC at 8 pm ET/5 pm PT and in more than 200 territories worldwide.

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